Author-illustrator Katie Davis has created fabulous picture books, including WHO HOPS? (Harcourt, 1998); I HATE TO GO TO BED! (Harcourt, 1999); and WHO HOOTS? (Harcourt, 2000). This interview was conducted via email in September 2000.
Your work has a delightful, playful, little-kid perspective to it. How do you get in touch with the point of view of very young children?
I’ve always loved the silly logic of little kids. My dad was very silly and happily, I inherited that. Why do we have to be serious just because we’re older than we used to be? The other part, and this is connected, obviously, is that my childhood feels parallel to my adulthood. It’s not the past. The girl I was at 7 and 12 and 16 still is me, not someone I once was.
What about this age group appeals to you?
Which age group? (!) I don’t write with an age group in mind, specifically.
I think of a story or idea first, not an audience.
WHO HOPS? and WHO HOOTS? has appealed to a huge age range. I’ve been very surprised at that. I’ve seen babies mesmerized by the colors and shapes, I’ve seen new readers proudly reading the patterned phrases, and I’ve seen older (2nd and 3rd graders) kids cracking up at the humor.
When I’ve visited sixth and seventh graders to talk about writing and the creative process and read my books to them, even they laugh! And they are way too cool to laugh unless it’s really funny, so I love that.
What was your first work, way back when you were a “child reader?” Did you come out of the womb with a paint brush? Were you telling stories around your camp-girl fire?
The first thing I remember writing was in first grade…a story about my Papa Louie taking his false teeth out for me because it made me laugh. The book I’m working on for 2002 is called MABEL THE TOOTHFAIRY AND HOW SHE GOT HER JOB. I wonder if Papa Louie had something to do with planting that seed?! I look at my childhood art now and see that I was, indeed, always telling stories through my art. The art is very narrative. I’ve always been a late (very late) bloomer, so this clue into my path is fascinating to me, since it appears that I came to this career late. But I didn’t. It was there all the time. (And yes, I always loved to do art. I have a photo of when I was about 5 , posing proudly with a painting I had done. I remember that picture being taken and how I was so happy about it).
Humor is incorporated into your books, and a lot of people think this is the hardest thing to do. What’s funny to you?
Here is the formula: Silly stuff is funny. Unexpected things are funny. Surprises make people laugh. Opposites are funny. Exaggeration is really funny.
Here is the problem with the formula: silly doesn’t always work.
Unexpected things can feel disconnected. Opposites and exaggeration sometimes are…just…um… opposites and exaggeration. In other words, there IS no formula to writing humor. You just have to be funny and know when you see funny. And you have to know when something ISN’T funny, too.
That can be even harder.
If there were a formula for people to be funny, everyone would be laughing and the world would be different. Hey! Maybe we could (sniff!) change the world with laughter (dab eyes with hankie).
What advice do you have for people trying to write humor for kids?
If you are a funny person in life, and you are a writer, then you probably can write humor. If you have to ask, probably you should stick to the straight stuff.
WHO HOPS? was such a successful book that it inspired the companion WHO HOOTS? Were you always a big question-asker?
I’ll answer any question a child asks me because it made me crazy when my parents answered, “Because I said so.” Now that I’m a parent, I understand why they said that, but I’ll still answer any question that isn’t in whine format.
Are there any other who-inquiries in the mix?
Could be! I’m so busy now though with two other books, a novel I’m writing and my next picture book, that it’s too soon to think about that.
Publishers Weekly, in a glowing review, referred to your WHO HOPS? premise as “silly.” Kids love silliness, but so many adults are uncomfortable with it. Why do you think this is true?
People are afraid they’ll look stupid. I also think people believe that if they’re silly they won’t be taken seriously. And people work so hard to be taken seriously. But people take Steve Martin seriously and he’s as brilliant and can be as silly as you can get. So go figure.
Can you tell us a little about your next book, SCARED STIFF?
I just finished it and it’s coming out next fall. Linnie (the girl from I HATE TO GO TO BED!) is scared of lots of things in her world (the snakes in her closet, the dog next door who loves children…for LUNCH, and The Monsters Who Live In The Bushes) and decides this is not a good way to live. So she “turns into a witch because everyone knows witches aren’t afraid of anything”. She faces her fears and when she does, realizes there is nothing to be afraid of. But it’s um, funnier than that.
Can you tell us a little about your own path to publication?
I’ve been writing and illustrating for decades, but never had the guts to submit anything because I knew I didn’t know the proper way to submit. That’s not true, actually. I did submit and get rejected, just like everyone. But I didn’t do submissions for very long because I knew I was missing important information. Then I went to an SCBWI conference, figured out what I needed to make my work salable, and re-worked everything I had done.
I did have a huge stroke of luck meeting Peggy Rathmann, who introduced me to the man who became my agent. He has sold all my books.
Do you think it’s a good idea to illustrate manuscripts by other authors if you have your own stories to tell and illustrate?
Sure, why not? My own ideas keep me so busy though. I spend at least a year on each book (that’s after it has been sold to my publisher), so I don’t know where I’d get the time. Oh, and then there’s life. And that takes time, too. Theoretically, I’d like to illustrate someone’s else’s work though.
What other advice do you have for author-illustrators?
If it is your passion, don’t ever give up. Easy advice to give, not so easy to take. Learn as much as possible about your genre, and go to any and all meetings/conferences/workshops where you’ll meet other people who love doing this too. Cameraderie is essential to keeping the spirit up in this very tough business. And read as many books as possible!